Is Moving to Hawaii Right for You?
Which Island Should You Choose?
Are you moving or thinking of making a move to Hawaii? Relocating to Hawaii is a significant life decision shared by millions around the globe. But given Hawaii's geographic isolation, moving to the Hawaiian Islands comes with several challenges, and thus, it takes careful planning to avoid unnecessary problems. This article will help you better prepare to move to Hawaii's beautiful islands.
Relocating to Hawaii
When moving, you must decide which major island you want to live on. We say "major" because we expect most visitors will want to move to one of the main islands: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. We're not going to cover Molokai or Lanai in this article since we don't go into detail about either on this site – both are not what we'd consider major islands to make a move to anyway. But we digress.
Selecting the right island is essential – for a lot of reasons. For starters, selecting an island involves more than picking a neighborhood; it entails picking an entire experience and lifestyle. Comparing life on Oahu to Kauai is like comparing apples and oranges.
So which island is for you? Ultimately, only you can decide, but we intend to help get you started with a few tips about each island later in this article. To begin, let's go over the basics.
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Planning a Move to Hawaii
The basics to get you started...
Before you move, visit the island and area you want to move to – find the location and neighborhood and get a feel for the community. Try to get a good idea of what the climate and weather are like for that area, and be sure to visit at night to get a glimpse of what it's like after dark. Overall, you want a solid picture of the area you'll call home. The diverse geography of each island dramatically affects the climate and weather – which should be essential for you to consider in your search. For example, living on any island's windward (northeast) side is not your best choice if you don't like the rain or the wind.
You'll also want to talk to other people living on the island to help determine the best location for you. Forming meaningful, authentic relationships in Hawaii is everything, and the sooner you can start making connections and developing friends, the better.
OK, first reality check: Hawaii is the most expensive state in the country, with a 2023 cost of living nearly twice the national average. MIT's Living Wage Calculator for a couple with two children to live in Hawaii; each adult needs to make over $30 per hour. Hawaii also has the 2nd highest effective income tax rate.
Malihini (newcomers) to the islands are generally not taken very seriously in their first year because many return to the mainland not long after arrival. In classic Catch-22 fashion, this may affect getting a job, getting a reasonable price on an apartment, and many other things. This isn't meant to discourage you but to keep things realistic when moving to the state.
One significant-- and often overlooked-- factor is the cost of food. Since the vast majority of food is imported, it costs much more than it would on the mainland. Larger supermarkets like Wal-Mart and Costco tend to have more "reasonable" prices, but you can still expect anything and everything to be at least slightly more expensive than usual.
Renting vs. Buying
Both options have their benefits. Suppose you are in a position to purchase a home in Hawaii and are confident that you are ready to make the move. In that case, you will immediately step into the stability and security of homeownership. Quality rentals can be hard to find and often need to offer the long-term safety and flexibility of owning your home. On the other hand, renting for the initial time you plan to move here allows you to get a feel for the islands and ensure this is the place you truly want to call home. Renting also allows you time to thoroughly research neighborhoods and visit many properties for sale as you transition to home ownership. Renting is standard on the islands. About 40% of residents rent. You will be one of many looking for a good deal.
Rental prices vary from island to island, and we've included an estimate of each island's costs below in each island's descriptive section. Generally, expect to spend much more in Hawaii than on the mainland. If you're from a major urban city on the mainland, the price might not give you a sticker shock compared to what you're paying now, but for most mainlanders, the price is surprising. The average rent in Hawaii is the highest in the US at $2,399 monthly. Asking rent for a typical unit is significantly higher than this, averaging $2,850. Of course, you can find options below the average cost - but even for a single person in a studio, paying less than four figures will be hard, if possible.
The costs of living in Hawaii often mean that renters work multiple jobs to make ends meet. This is another reality check moment. This may sound like a minor deal but think long-term. Are you prepared to work multiple jobs for months or years to make ends meet? Hawaii isn't all sun and fun when you live here – and this reality check is something you strongly need to be aware of. Living here isn't cheap, and housing is just the start. Groceries, insurance, health costs, etc., are also much higher here than in most places on the mainland. A study last year showed that Hawaii renters spend about half their income on rent, another roughly 10% on health insurance, and another 13.7% on childcare. This leaves less than 30% of their income on bills, food, gas, etc.
Lastly, if you're wondering when to move, we suggest doing so between March and May or from August through October, as fewer tourists are on the island(s) at these times, and the weather is ideal for moving. Additionally, flights, rental rates, and accommodations are more affordable.
Other Factors to Consider
Be sure to research crime in the various areas of the island you choose. Also, be very aware of the condition of the education system in Hawaii. Some will frown upon our opinion here because it's not politically correct. Still, if you have keiki (children), you'll likely consider private schooling. This, of course, is costly. We also want to advise people about the pests here, particularly centipedes and other bugs. Expect them in Hawaii regularly. To cover the other basics, the book, "So You Want to Live in Hawaii" by Toni Polancy is a good read. It provides infinitely greater detail about all the miscellaneous particulars we can't discuss here.
What to Ship and What to Sell Back Home?
Our best advice when moving to Hawaii: Keep things as simple and minimalistic as possible. Sell what you can back home, and come with as few possessions as humanly possible. Furnished apartments are typical here because many owners use them as rentals. To bring all of your furniture etc., is a waste of money. In some cases, even parts of your wardrobe won't be needed (depending on the island) – so only bring the clothes you'll need for the island in question. Remember that if you can't ship it to Hawaii in a box (UPS, FedEx, or USPS), you'll probably have to rent a pod or crate and have it shipped to the islands (which can take a while, depending on your location). The only significant item we often recommend people ship is their car. You can send your automobile here at around $1,500-$2,100. Since public transportation is practically non-existent outside of Oahu, you'll need a car in Hawaii.
If you're bringing your pets, then be forewarned the policies for importing pets are very strict here. Plan far in advance on this and be prepared to have a quarantine period for most pets if they are not entirely up-to-date on their vaccinations and you haven't kept meticulous vet records.
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Overview of Each Major Hawaiian Island
Oahu – The Gathering Place
Oahu is the most populated of all the main Hawaiian Islands. With nearly one million residents, it is home to Honolulu-- the state's capital-- as well as Waikiki and Pearl Harbor. Oahu is the most popular island to move to because the job opportunities and salaries are higher here. Oahu is Hawaiian through and through, but it has the most in common with the mainland. It’s busy, fast-paced, and modern. There are tall buildings, major highways, malls, and many other things in any significant mainland city.
The bulk of jobs here are tourism-related (retail especially), though there are a lot of government (including military) and civil (construction) jobs as well. Many people say Oahu is one of the most beautiful islands in the chain, and like all the major islands has a windward and leeward side. Do your research about the neighborhoods on the island, and, as always, we highly recommend finding a local realtor who can help you find a place to rent or buy.
According to Zillow, Honolulu's median monthly rent for all bedrooms and property types is $2,800. On the island of Oahu, as a whole, the median rent is $2,429
Maui – The Valley Isle
Maui is larger than Oahu, but it only has about 1/10th of the people living here. Maui has a busy pace and has grown significantly in recent years. But jobs and the economy are not Oahu and job searching can sometimes be frustrating. Tourism-related jobs remain the most common occupation, followed by civil work-- and agriculture.
Maui has more diversity in geography than Oahu. Upcountry Maui is dramatically different than living along the Hana Highway, for example – both culturally and climatologically speaking.
Rent has soared on Maui in recent years. As of March 2023, the median rent is $2,764 on Maui and is above average even for Hawaii.
Kauai – The Garden Isle
Perhaps more than any other major island, Kauai has a small-town feel. Dramatically different than bustling Oahu and Maui, Kauai is home to only around 75,000 people.
Like Oahu and Maui, Kauai is economically fueled primarily by tourism and civil-related jobs. There are also some military/government jobs on the island because the military has a small presence in the Southwestern portion.
The average rent on Kauai is about $2,148 a month, and it's worth noting the wages here tend to be lower than on Oahu or Maui. Kauai is unique because most residents live relatively close to the coast, as most of the island's interior is a highland swamp and impassible terrain.
Hawaii – The Big Island or Orchid Isle
The Big Island has one major thing going for it - it’s BIG (when compared to the other islands). Its population is the second-highest in the state at nearly 200,000 residents. However, the population density is by far the lowest of the four islands.
Tourism is the primary source of jobs here, followed by agriculture and civil-related jobs. The bulk of work (tourism-wise) is on the island's western side along the busy Kona Coast. No island has the geographic diversity the Big Island has, so definitely do your research before selecting an area.
The average cost of rent and utilities for a family of 4 is $2,476. But naturally, jobs are harder to find here, and traffic is surprisingly bad on the Kona side because many people commute (starting at 3 AM - 6 AM) from Hilo (on the eastern side) to work on the West Coast, where the tourism jobs are located.
Moving to Hawaii - Final Thoughts
So that’s living here in a nutshell. We hope this article has provided valuable insight into what it’s like to live in Hawaii. Remember, "Be prepared" should always be your motto when moving here. Doing your homework and knowing as much as possible will pay off in the long run. Your move is an exciting and fun time, but it should also be done with caution and realistic expectations, or else you may be one of the hundreds who move back to the mainland each year. Hawaii is a paradise for many reasons, but it’s also a difficult place to live for most because of the economy.
Mahalo, and the best of luck in planning your move to the beautiful islands of Hawaii!
Read our Moving to Hawaii Checklist article for even more moving to Hawaii tips.
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